U.S. stock markets continue to reel from a recent hoax in which the Dow dropped 145 points in a matter of two minutes in response to a single fake tweet. The AP’s Twitter account was hacked by a group calling itself the Syrian Electronic Army, which posted that there had been two explosions in the White House and that President Obama had been injured.
Shortly thereafter, the AP tweeted that it had been hacked and press secretary Jay Carney quickly brushed off the rumors. “The President is fine, I was just with him,” he said. The Dow recovered quickly, but not before a massive selloff that is now being investigated by regulators. “It’s frustrating and scary that a tweet can erase hundreds of billions from the market in a short time, but that’s the world we live in,” said an associate director of equities trading about the incident.
April is traditionally a month where we celebrate all manner of jokes, pranks, hoaxes, scams, and tomfoolery. This year, Google, Twitter, and YouTube all got into the April Fool’s Day fun with elaborate pranks. Twitter announced, in a Wheel-of-Fortune-inspired joke, that it was launching a “two-tiered service” in which users would now have to buy their vowels. The “basic service,” Twttr, which includes only consonants, would usher in a “more efficient and ‘dense’ form of communication.” For $5 a month, users could purchase vowels too using the “premium” Twitter service (“y”s are free). “Hppy prl fl’s dy,” read the new Twttr mockup.
YouTube announced that at midnight on March 31 it would shut down its site for the next decade and judge 150,000 submitted videos in order to “select a winner,” reopening again in 2023 with only the winning video. Not to be outdone, Google created two pranks: a YouTube video announced its latest innovation, Google Nose Beta, a “flagship olfactory knowledge feature” allowing users to search for smells (like dogs acquire their information); and a second video celebrating the launch of “Treasure Mode” on Google Maps, a digitized version of Captain Kidd’s long lost treasure maps, complete with pirate ship tracking feature and sepia-toned street view overlay. The treasure map, once decoded, spelled out “April Fools.”
Were They Kidding with Scope Bacon? Yes.
Consumer products companies also launched fake products for April Fool’s Day. Procter & Gamble rolled out Scope Bacon, a bacon-flavored mouthwash “for breath that sizzles.” So convincing was this product launch, complete with Facebook ad campaign and promotional website including a promo video that went viral, that a number of customers were disappointed and angry to find out that it was a fake. Part of the confusion seems to have been that the launch occurred on March 28, not the customary April 1. But just as important was consumer demand. Enough people were convinced by the slick product rollout that they actually wanted to try it. “That’s not funny. I really wanted a sample,” complained one would-be customer.
What constitutes a good hoax? And what makes it different from your average joke, prank, lie, deception, fraud, publicity stunt, etc? The Museum of Hoaxes, a website devoted to exploring “deception, mischief, and misinformation throughout history,” defines a hoax as a “deliberately deceptive act that has succeeded in capturing the attention (and ideally, the imagination) of the public… There is no such thing as a private hoax. A deception rises to the level of a hoax by achieving public notoriety.”
Like Orson Welles’ Martian invasion radio broadcast that set off a mass panic in 1938, Scope Bacon, Twttr, Google Beta, Google Treasure Maps, and the YouTube “best video contest” were all convincing enough that a sizable segment of the public believed they could be true, despite the suspicious timing (in the case of War of the Worlds, Halloween, and April 1 in the other cases). On occasion, as was the case with Scope Bacon, some even wanted it to be true: “Obviously people were wanting the product, you have a demand for it. Make it,” posted one Facebook commenter.
The Joel Osteen “Media Campaign”
All in good fun. But another April Fool’s hoax was not so well-received. A Minnesota man, Justin Tribble, who self-identifies as a freelance journalist, spent $12 and five hours on April 1 to register the domain name joelostenministries.com (note the single “e”). He designed the fake website to closely resemble the original and, along with a photo of Osteen, he posted the following:
Special Announcement: I am leaving the Christian faith.
The post continued:
As many of you may know, and may have heard in the news recently, many of my sermons have deviated from traditional Christian doctrine. I have been accused of altering the ‘message’ to fit my own doctrine and dogma. Others have accused me of preaching ‘feel-good Christianity.’ I have also been accused of profiting greatly from my ministry, with my books and television deals. Many of their criticisms are legitimate.
It went on to state, in a gasp-inducing reveal, that Osteen had been questioning his faith for years, no longer believed that the Bible was true or that Jesus Christ was the son of God, and stated that he believed the “God of the Bible” was a “fictional character,” like Osteen himself. The post then ended with a rather odd disclaimer suggesting an internal struggle over control of his message:
We’re also having some trouble transferring ownership of some of our web sites, so as of now, I haven’t been able to update everything on all of them. I’m dealing with some church leaders who refuse to accept my resignation. They are refusing to change or alter any of our many web sites, and this is the only one I have control over.
The hoax included a corresponding fake Twitter account @PastorJoelOsten, which issued a single tweet: “I am leaving the Christian faith and I have resigned as pastor. Please visit our site at joelostenministries.com for more info.” All of this was backed up by a YouTube video attributed to an (also fake) “Christianity News” channel that featured screenshots of the website and doctored CNN and Drudge Report headlines appearing to confirm the news played over ominous-sounding music. A “Christianity News Texas” blog post on April 2, written by Tribble, reported on the “Special Announcement.”
The combination of these interlocking, seemingly credible sites and the shocking nature of the story itself generated a large amount of attention in just a few days. Tribble’s “Special Announcement” quickly received over a million page views and was reported on (if sometimes hesitatingly, as “unconfirmed”) by NPR, ABC News, The Huffington Post, New York Daily News, the Houston Chronicle, and many other local news outlets and blogs. The real Joel Osteen Ministries began to receive inquiries.
The earliest official denial came from the real Joel Osteen’s Twitter account on April 8 in response to a tweet: “It is a false rumor. Pastor Joel is not leaving the church. -JOM Team,” it read. The media coverage then shifted to reporting on the hoax: “Pastor Joel Osteen Is the Target of a Complex Online Hoax,” read the earliest national news headline, NPR’s on April 8. This was followed by features in The Huffington Post, ABC/Good Morning America, and Fox News, as well as local Houston-area outlets.
Osteen himself appeared on Good Morning America on April 9 to declare, “All is well. I still have my faith, nothing has changed. I’m really not angry, I don’t feel like a victim, I feel too blessed, that life is too short to let things like this get you down.” The GMA report framed Osteen’s response as “true to form,” “turning the other cheek,” and “spinning this bit of adversity as part of his core message” of “choosing joy.” But why target Osteen, the reporters still wondered?
We Need to Examine this Man
The perpetuator of the hoax and his motives were gradually revealed starting with an anonymous email to NPR later in the day on April 9, in which the hoaxer explained that, “unequivocally my intent was not to defame Mr. Osteen,” but rather, “to stage, for a moment, a plausible scenario of his hypothetical resignation” and to “test viral media markets.”
Tribble himself came forward for several public interviews on April 10, including one for GMA, in which he argued that he had conducted a “media campaign,” not a hoax, and urged Osteen to “tone down the cliches and get real.” Of these interviews, the most revealing was a radio spot with a local Minnesota station. When asked what he did and why, Tribble responded: “Well, apparently I staged a massive hoax on Joel Osteen, one of the biggest preachers and televangelists in the world.”
“Apparently”? In other words, he was acknowledging what his story had become in the media (a “hoax”), not what he had intended it to be (a “media campaign”). Pressed as to why he would intentionally “defame” Osteen, Tribble resisted that characterization: “that word hurts. ‘Hoax’ I think is a lot more [inaudible].”
Why the “hoax,” then? Was he trying to get a message to Osteen?
Oh I’m trying to get a message to him: Take a step back, Joel. Take a step back from your money, take a step back from the books, look inside yourself, what are you doing? What are you doing? Now, now if Joel Osteen was just a self-help guy, a motivational speaker, … I would have absolutely no issue with this man. He’s a fantastic speaker, he’s—he’s tremendously likable, he’s really good at what he does. But this man is basically taking the mantle from Billy Graham, the greatest televangelist of all time, the greatest, you know, pastor-preacher of all time as far as I’m concerned. And he’s huge now. He is the figurehead, I believe, of Christianity, notwithstanding the pope, he is a big deal. And when you take that position, and when you position yourself as a conduit, as the conduit through which God is speaking to the world, you have a huge responsibility on your shoulders.
The host continued to press Tribble, asking what kind of a statement he was trying to make; whether it was a journalistic one or a religious one; whether he is a religious person, and whether that was why he did this.
“Not really, no.” (Tribble would reveal in a later interview that he had been raised Christian but had abandoned the faith as a young adult.)
“Don’t you feel better when you watch him?” the host continued.
“He’s wonderful!” Tribble agreed. “Yes, I do. [But] It’s so interesting that a man who can make you feel so good when you listen to him could also be apostate at the same time.” Asked to define “apostate,” Tribble replied: “a person who is not following through on their religious mandate… I want people to start looking at this.”
The issue, then, for Tribble seems to be one of media visibility and public perception of a powerful religious leader like Osteen, who has become in many ways the “figurehead of Christianity” in the United States and taken the mantle of “America’s evangelist” from Billy Graham who was, of course, one of the most famous and media-savvy religious leaders and public figures of the 20th century. Tribble apparently feels that Osteen has, with his stack of bestselling books, television appearances, Lakewood congregation of 45,000, and audience of millions worldwide, become “more famous than Jesus,” to paraphrase John Lennon’s infamous 1966 quote about the Beatles.
Tribble doesn’t really believe that Osteen will listen to him, but he hopes that others will question Osteen and his “Christianity-lite” message (something that Osteen has long been criticized for). Asked if it was “fair” for him to “mislead” people with a false communication, Tribble reasoned:
Yeah, there are a lot of people that would be very very upset about this. But my argument is, if you are whole with Christ, if you are a Christian who is an honest Christian, you’re not a hypocrite, what I do is not going to affect you… The point is not me. I look at it this way. God is using me probably in some capacity, I don’t know how. The issue is Joel Osteen, we need to examine this man.
Just Believable Enough
So Joel Osteen is not losing his religion, but this story may have something to tell us about hoaxes and authenticity. First, whether something may acquire the public stature of a media phenomenon is a matter largely out of the creator’s hands, having little to do with skill, planning, or timing. Even the fact that media sources declared it a “hoax” rather than Tribble’s preferred “media campaign” made it into a different type of story than intended. And Tribble’s project was repeatedly referred to as “elaborate” (and therefore more convincing), though he vehemently denied this characterization in interviews: “I don’t even know how to code. It took me five hours to throw this all together.”
Whatever his intention may have been, media and public response were an entirely separate matter. “I literally did not expect anything to really happen,” Tribble said. “I wasn’t even paying attention and I found out along with everyone else this had gone viral. This was not ‘elaborate,’ by any means. Anybody can put anything up on the internet. Whether you want something to go viral or not is not in your control, it’s in the public’s control.”
Second, authenticity online is often self-referential, and its sources self-authenticating. Bolter and Grusin’s influential study of “remediation” makes the point that media sources are constantly interacting with one another in a web of self-justifying logic—particularly new media. The website Tribble created was reinforced by the fake Twitter account, which was reinforced by the fake “Christianity News” YouTube video and the “Christianity News Texas” blog, which in turn were all reinforced by the doctored screenshots of CNN and Drudge Report headlines “reporting” Osteen’s announcement. The announcement even featured an attempt to discredit other sites to make the story seem more believable. It was the combination of all of these sites and sources, and the real news outlets that then picked the story up as newsworthy and continued to spread it—the self-justifying, logical circularity of “news” and an (at least initial) inability for users to distinguish between credible news outlets and non-credible ones—that contributed to the plausibility of the announcement.
Third, a good hoax hovers on the edge of believability. Like Scope Bacon, Google Nose Beta, or a Martian invasion, a well-crafted prank should have a solid media penetration (multiple and interlinked sources) and just enough of a connection to reality to make it seem credible. Sure, the product is a little strange (seriously, bacon mouthwash?), but then again why would P&G spend all this money promoting a product if it wasn’t real?
In the case of Osteen, for all his likability, positive message, good looks, and 15 bestselling books, perhaps the suspicion Americans harbor toward public religious figures since the televangelist scandals of the 1980s make him seem just questionable enough. Or, as Tribble put it, “I also think it’s telling that so many people believed the hoax. Do you think people would believe Billy Graham rejected Christianity? No, because he’s a man we all know to be consistent and of extraordinary character. The fact this was so readily believed by people suggested to me, in the backs of their minds, Osteen seems a little sketchy to them.”
The fake websites were all taken down after a day or two, the Twitter account suspended, the YouTube video removed, and the Osteen hoax story was over in a few days. But Tribble has maintained a blog, Christianity News Texas: The Original Joel Osteen Hoax Site, in which he explains his reasons for the hoax and links to various interviews. “For a moment, the world held its breath…” it rather grandiosely proclaims. “If only it had been true… ”
Osteen seems to have forgiven and forgotten, but what’s next for Tribble? “I want him [Osteen] to donate all the book sales to Christian charities, one hundred percent. I want him to tone down the cliches and platitudes, get off the ‘faith to gain’ message, and start sticking to scripture and Christ’s words instead of ‘interpreting’ them. I want him to start talking about real-world issues affecting Christians and non-Christians alike.” Real world issues such as Monsanto and GMO foods, flouride in the water, the environment, and Obama’s policies. As for Tribble, he’ll continue to “hope and pray people wake up, get involved, join me, pressure Osteen. I don’t have much hope, though. It’s hard to compete with a guy who tells people, ‘Pray to God, He’ll give you goodies.’”
Ain’t that the truth.